They say it’s easier to win your first world championship than it is to defend it, but winning the first one still takes a massive amount of talent.
Romain Febvre won his MXGP world championship in 2015 with some style, his attacking, aggressive racing also combined with an uncanny ability to find grip in hard conditions when precise throttle control and body positioning were key.
He probably wasn’t many people’s pick for the championship as it was supposed to be Villopoto or Cairoli in a battle of the USA vs Europe.
Villopoto soon imploded after turning up under prepared, and Cairoli made an uncharacteristic mistake at round 13 that would put him out for the rest of the season, save for a cameo in Glen Helen.
Febvre’s final year in MX2 in 2014 had been good, riding for the Nestaan factory Husqvarna team. But a third place in the final standings with just one race win didn’t really give any indication of the spectacular year that would follow.
Febvre’s French compatriot Jordi Tixier won the title, clawing back a huge points deficit after Jeffrey Herlings broke his leg at a charity race.
Moving to a 450 Factory Yamaha in MXGP, 2015 started modestly with consistent top 10 finishes in the first six GPs then his first moto victory in round seven at Matterley Basin opened the floodgates and he would win at least one race in every GP, except Belgium, for the rest of the year – even taking the battle to the Americans and winning the final GP at Glen Helen.
Crowned the week before, he made no secret of the fact he wanted to beat the Americans at home for the pride of the Europeans and to show them the world championship means something.
His championship victory was emphatic. 143 points in front of second-placed Gautier Paulin, they would be joined by Marvin Musquin and dominate the MXdN on home soil at Ernee, the venue for this weekend’s MXGP of France.
2016 started well for Romain, with plenty of top fives and seven race wins through the first 10 rounds before things unravelled at the scene of the previous year’s first success, Matterley Basin.
Battling with Ben Townley in qualifying, the two touched exiting the high-speed bowl turn in the valley, the resulting crash left Febvre unconscious and out for two GPs.
He returned for Loket with two third places but wasn’t the same. And with Tim Gasjer firmly in control of the championship, the final four rounds were dismal, failing to score in two races and ending up fourth in the championship. He did win a moto at the MXdN in Maggoria to retain the Chamberlain Cup for France in a nail-biting finish so it wasn’t all bad, and with some time to recover before the winter training started hopes were high for a strong return.
With eight rounds in the books already, 2017 hasn’t been the year Febvre wanted.
In 2016, Febvre scored 331 points in the first eight rounds with five race wins, by comparison, this year he has managed 177 points with only three top-five finishes and no race victories. It’s quite a contrast.
Eighth in the championship but 128 points behind Cairoli, the blazing fast speed, particularly on hard-packed tracks when grip is sketchy, just doesn’t seem to be there.
Scoring 31 points at the Qatar opener wasn’t too bad but just three points from the Indonesia mud-fest was a blow that was only slightly softened as other title contenders also struggled.
Training in California with Ryan Hughes before the Mexico GP didn’t have the desired effect with only 24 points scored.
His team-mate Van Horbeek is in fifth, 49 points ahead, something that doesn’t sit well with Febvre as the two don’t get on.
Comparisons have been drawn to MotoGP when Rossi and Lorenzo were in the same garage but didn’t speak, particularly when ‘number 2’ Lorenzo started beating Rossi.
Returning to Europe after the four fly-away races, Trentino was a disaster for Febvre, finishing 13th. “I don’t know what to say, I just feel like I don’t know why the speed is not there. I will keep working,” a frustrated Febvre said of his weekend. It may not have helped that Wilvo Yamaha’s Arnaud Tonus stood on the podium for the first time.
On to Valkenswaard and a better weekend for Febvre and eighth overall. “The final place is not very rewarding, but I’m happy with the way in which I took the place on the weekend. I didn’t feel good Saturday and we have worked well with the team for the race on Sunday,” said Febvre post-race via his Instagram page. Better starts and a good battle with Herlings in the second race meant there was some hope that things were improving.
There’s no doubt the level of competition this year is the best ever and the pace is incredible throughout the pack. Cairoli, Gasjer and a resurgent Herlings seem to be the only one’s able to move forward from a poor start, and even Tim Gasjer was unable to do it in Germany after a crash in Latvia left him battered and bruised only to be compounded by another crash during qualifying at Teutschenthal.
Latvia was also unkind to Febvre. A crash in practice left him with a painful leg and damaged bike. “I fell heavily because of a pilot that changed course at the last moment,” he bemoaned. 16th and 10th places yielded just 16 points.
Team Yamaha had made some improvements to the bike before Germany that suited Febvre and he looked more like his old self, racing hard with his team-mate Van Horbeek in qualifying for fifth, setting the quickest time in Sunday warm-up and battling with Max Anstie in both races for seventh and fifth and fifth overall, (equalling his best overalls of the season in Qatar and Argentina). “It’s been a positive weekend with a very good speed and good results. We have worked well on the bike with the team and it bears fruit,” was the most upbeat Febvre had been for a while, only to reveal later that he had caught his foot in a rut during race two, damaging ankle ligaments and finishing the race in great pain.
Returning to France after the race for further medical checks and physiotherapy, his participation in his home GP would be confirmed later in the week but he can ill afford to miss any races.
With Bobryshev injured he has the chance to pass the Russian in the championship, but equally needs to hold off Max Nagl who is only 14 points behind.
Dealing with niggling injuries is part of the sport but even small fractions off your fitness or ability to race at 100 per cent can be costly, particularly with Febvre’s attacking all-out style.
Tim Gasjer has endured two wretched weeks by his standards, perhaps the weight of expectation and pressure to win finally catching up as he attempts to defend his world championship, so Febvre is not alone in succumbing to a crash induced ‘sophomore slump’ as the Americans put it.
Whatever the reasons, and there’s bound to be more than one reason, Febvre needs to find the spark again that lit his 2015 season.
Hopefully, the ankle injury will be minor and he should have plenty of happy memories and a partisan crowd behind him this weekend in France, and if he can get through it, he will have two weeks off before the Russian GP.
Any championship hopes for this year must now be gone but it would be good to see the flamboyant, full throttle Febvre back on the podium.